Aruba. Simply saying the name of this small Dutch-ruled island brings to mind images of bliss: pristine beaches, brilliant sun, a snorkelling and scuba diving paradise and one of the most luxurious island destinations in the world. And perhaps most unexpectedly, it’s also a dream destination for those seeking adventure travel.
Adventure In Aruba? Yes!
Beyond the predictable ocean sunsets and serenity, Aruba surprises many travellers with its impressive roster of adventure activities and wide range of accommodation from all-inclusive five star resorts to family friendly condo rentals. As I recently found out on my first (and hopefully not last) trip to the island, Aruba is a hot spot for active thrill seekers. Take your pick of skydiving, scuba diving, ATVing or hiking sand dunes. Not to mention an epic year round kitesurfing scene. The list goes on and on. And there is perhaps no better place to rest after all the island thrills than the Boardwalk Small Hotel Aruba. So here’s my blissed out guide to active island living on Aruba, and where to rest your sandy head at the end of the day.
“One Happy Island” Full of Action
Don’t let Aruba’s status as one of the Caribbean’s premiere honeymoon destinations fool you. The list of activities available impresses newlyweds and solo thrill seekers alike. I personally think it would make the perfect bachelor or bachelorette party for a long weekend. Here’s the highlights of what’s in store for you on your next Aruba travels:
Aruba is known for a host of incredible dive sites, with several shipwrecks (and plane wrecks) serving as interesting artificial reefs to explore. There are over 25 sites in total, perhaps the most famous of which is the Antilla. The Antilla is the largest wreck in the South Caribbean, purposefully sunk by its German crew at the start of World War II in an attempt to avoid confiscation. Most sites are within an easy 10-20 minute boat ride from shore, and range from 15 to 40 meters in depth. While the marine life doesn’t really compete with the incredible diving in the Maldives (humble brag), there is definitely enough here to excite even a seasoned diver.
There’s a range of reputable dive shops on the island offering one day “fun dives” for experienced divers all the way to full week long courses for those looking to get their PADI certification. After tons of research and communication with various dive shops, JADS Dive Center Aruba rose to the top. With competitive prices, a clear rotating schedule of dive sites, quality gear and small dive groups led by highly engaging staff, it’s easy to see why they have a near perfect Tripadvisor score.
ATV or UTV – Take Your Pick
When it comes to exploring Aruba’s Arikok National Park, there is no better way than an ATV. Okay, maybe UTV (the larger dune buggy like version of an ATV which seats three to six people), but the choice is yours. I strongly suggest a full day (8 hour) rental from one of the many shops on the island and building your own tour route. Justin’s Car And ATV Rental or Road Runner ATV Aruba offer competitive rates (around $120 for full day ATV or $250-270 for UTV that comfortably seats three) and includes pick up and drop off service.
The flat roads around Aruba are all very easy to navigate, though street signs are somewhat lacking. Once you arrive at the national park, the trails and are seemingly endless. Plan your loop wisely as there is a ton of ground to cover and you’ll want to take time to actually enjoy the view and highlights. A visit to the Fontein and Quadirikiri caves on the south end of the park, and Conchi (‘Natural Pool’) to the north are definite musts. We packed a cooler with lunch and enjoyed it on Dos Playa beach with literally no one else around. Our day was topped off with a visit to the Bushiribana Gold Smelter ruins a few kilometres north of Arikok. The site offers an interesting glimpse into the industrial history of Aruba as well as a fun climb to stunning panoramic views.
Several operators also run formal group tours of the national park via ATVs, UTVs and Jeeps. However, after seeing convoys of up to 15 vehicles kicking up dust on one another and crowding around each park attraction, I can’t see why any intrepid traveler would choose this option.
Quick Tip: Don’t forget to reapply sunscreen regularly and pack plenty of water. UV index is often “extreme” and daytime temperatures regularly reach 30-32 degrees celsius but feel like 38. You don’t want to have to double back to the park’s visitor centre to hydrate when you can be cruising along the shore, so plan your gear ahead.
Hiking Arikok National Park
If your idea of island adventure involves more nature and less machine, then it’s certainly possible to visit the national park by foot. Arikok, which was officially established in 2000, comprises 37 square kilometres, or almost 20%, of the entire island. It’s home to a variety of plant, bird and animal life – including unexpectedly adorable wild goats. There are plenty of hiking trails that vary in length and difficulty from from 800 meter loops to treks over five kilometres.
Looking for a free guide? It’s possible to call ahead (give a days notice) and book a private guided hike with a park ranger. They are happy to adapt the route to your interests, whether that be birds, gold mine ruins, views or beaches. While there is no formal cost, a tip for your guide is certainly well deserved by the end of the hike. It’s strongly recommended to visit early in the day. The park opens at 8:00am and hiking beyond 11:00am becomes very challenging due to the heat. Late afternoon walks are also possible before the park’s official close at 4:00pm.
Cycle Like a Pro
If you’re a cyclist, the views and breezes of Aruba are a dream come true. You’ll just have to plan your ride around the oppressive midday sun. Sticking to the well paved and flat roads of the island is an easy choice. If you do this, you’ll be able to tour the colorful town centres in Oranjestad (central) or San Nicolas (south), and stop for a local beer or two along the way. However, the best views can be seen from the sandier northern shore around the California Lighthouse. Taking a minute off the bike to hike the incredible sand dunes here is also a great way to explore without another tourist in sight. If you opt for this route, after the lighthouse make your way back south past Arashi Beach, Boca Catalina and Malmok Beach before reaching the main hotel strip again.
There are over 350 kilometres of biking trails on the island, of which the Aruba Tourism Authority has multiple trail suggestions. Standard $25 per 24 hr rentals can be arranged from the likes of TriBike Aruba or Aruba Bikes. Alternatively, consider a guided tour with the Rancho Notorious team led by certified Dutch cycling coach Geert Herbots.
World Class Skydiving Views
Skydiving is one of those bucket list items I’ve always wanted to do. It’s available in my hometown but the views would be of suburbs, forests and farmland, so I’ve never felt compelled to take the leap. Aruba, on the other hand, also offers skydiving. With a rugged eastern coastline and long stretches of western beaches, all surrounded by brilliant blue water, there is perhaps no better aerial view on earth. Skydiving with Skydive Aruba (the only operator on the island) will set you back $250 USD/pp for a tandem dive, but could definitely be worth it if you’re a thrill seeking traveller. What could be better than falling from 10,000 feet at a speed of 120 miles per hour as you look at the ocean below?
Go Fly a Kite
With near constant trade winds, Aruba is a kitesurfing paradise year-round. The Fisherman’s Huts on the northern edge of Palm Beach is a mecca for this activity if you’re new to the sport. There you’ll find options to rent boards, take a full realm of courses, or simply watch others land (or miss) epic moves. Since it’s almost always great conditions for kitesurfing (15-20 knot winds, flat water), it’s the perfect destination to begin a multi-day course and ensure you actually have time to complete it. Aruba Active Vacations, or Aruba Kitesurfing School, are amongst the most popular choices. Fees are all fairly similar, with a beginner course (eight hours over four days) costing $400-500 USD, or $110-120 USD for a two hour lesson.
More experienced boarders may opt to visit Boca Grandi on the southern tip of the island, where wind and waves are more intense.
Adventurous travelers in Aruba really do have endless activity options at every budget level. Along the popular Palm Beach there are countless options for renting jet skis, stand up paddle boards, windsurfing boards, kayaks, banana boat rides and yes, even flyboard lessons. If you’re unfamiliar with flyboards, just envision channelling your inner Ironman with water propulsion sending you into the air while being fueled by a nearby seadoo. Be warned, you will swallow more than your fair share of seawater as you learn to master these machines.
If you’re really looking for fun underwater then without a doubt take a Seabob Aruba tour. I, like most travelers, had absolutely no idea what a Seabob was before arriving in Aruba. However, once you’ve experienced them, these individual submersible propulsion machines are not easily forgotten. They allow a snorkeller to dive deeper and go further between breaths while exploring Aruba’s incredible corals and wrecks. Side note, the machines and the corresponding wetsuit you wear, basically allow you to feel like you are James Bond. Enough said.
If you need help deciding amongst all your activity choices, most hotels (and even some Airbnb hosts) will help with arrangements. At the top of my list when it comes to planning your travel itinerary, is the Boardwalk Small Hotel Aruba. They offer an impressive (and complimentary!) e-concierge service that begins immediately upon booking your stay. Suffice it to say, I spend a lot of time in the world of online travel and travel planning. At 22 countries and counting, I have yet to encounter a team and web portal as impressive as Boardwalk’s. Boardwalk also has agreements with select rental and tour companies to ensure you’re getting the best deal possible for your travel dollar.
Where to Stay in Aruba
The main hotel and tourist zone stretches along Aruba’s longest beach, Palm Beach, and is home to a series of multi-story buildings. The likes of Marriott, Hilton, Holiday Inn, Riu Palace and even the Ritz Carlton have a presence. Expect to pay $200-550 USD per night depending on the property and food and drink inclusions. While appealing for people looking for traditional beach front digs, the crowds of pedestrian traffic around the beach and hotel pools may make it difficult to relax in privacy for more discerning travelers.
Other options such as Airbnb fully equipped apartments abound on the island, usually a short drive from Palm Beach or in the southern tip of the island in the town of San Nicolas close to Baby Beach. These tend to be more budget friendly (as low as $85 USD per night), but require a $35-50 USD per day car rental to access restaurants and beaches.
Looking for the best of both worlds with beach proximity but no crowds and a touch of luxe service, I opted for the Boardwalk Small Hotel Aruba, which turned out to be perfect.
Welcome to the Boardwalk Small Hotel Aruba
Before even setting foot on the Boardwalk Small Hotel Aruba property, I felt I had already been personally welcomed to this colorful boutique hotel because, thanks to the previously mentioned e-concierge service, I had! The property is family run and owned by twins Stephanie and Kimberly Rooijakkers. Born in Aruba but raised in Belgium, they returned annually to kitesurf and when the hotel’s property became available, they knew they had to have it. They’re happy to share their story with guests as well as travel tips on the island during complimentary Thursday night cocktail receptions.
The Boardwalk is conveniently located 250 meters back from the northern section of Palm Beach, behind the Ritz Carlton. While not “beach front”, the property has it’s own dedicated section of the beach with plush loungers that can be reserved free of charge, with food and drink service from the Ritz staff. Guests also receive complimentary access to loungers and privileges at Moomba Beach Club (five minutes down the beach). Boardwalk Small Hotel Aruba also offers a unique ‘Aruba Treasure Box‘ in each room, with ideas on the most authentic and popular activities on the island from amazing seafood restaurants like Wacky Wahoo’s to the aforementioned SeaBob Aruba tours.
From the colorful rooms and small lagoon pool to the impressive breakfast spread served in your own casita (cottage), it’s the definition of casual luxury. There are only 14 rooms spread across this former coconut plantation meaning lots of privacy amongst the foliage. There is so much space that you can even arrange an on site outdoor massages from a nearby spa.
The Boardwalk Small Hotel Aruba is ideal for those looking to get away from the traditional tourist crowds and slow down the pace of travel. It’s also a comfy homebase to rest your head after a day of thrills and spills if you’re more of an active traveler. One of my most memorable nights in Aruba was simply spent with a bottle of wine (ok, two bottles of wine) and pizza delivery enjoyed on our little patio overlooking the pool. Each Boardwalk suite also has a charcoal BBQ and they offer a convenient BBQ package complete with everything to need to grill, season and serve your meal. Many travelers opt to buy fresh seafood from the local market or famous restaurants such as Zeerovers and ‘stay in’ for a meal.
The property is colorful and welcoming, literally. There are a few cats and a resident dog that live at the Boardwalk, along with more than a few brightly colored lizards that can be found cruising around patios and the pool. While some people see these local ‘hosts’ as fun and interesting, others may not react to their surprise appearances as positively.
Getting In, Around and Out of Aruba
Located less than 40 kilometres off the coast of Venezuela, Aruba is a fairly easy 4.5 hour direct flight from Toronto, with several direct flights from major US hubs. Tourists visas are not required for most countries, and the airport is modern and large given the island’s relative size.
Driving around Aruba is a breeze. Most roads are well paved, relatively flat and cars drive on the right side of the road. Car rental companies abound and most vehicles are automatic. Smaller cars can be rented for $30-50 USD per day, while larger Jeeps may be $75+ per day, which allow you to traverse the rocky north eastern coast with ease. While I’m living proof that it is possible to take a 2-wheel drive Kia Picanto and make it out the other end of this ‘off road’ area, in retrospect it’s not advisable. In fact, I’m fairly certain AVIS prohibits it. Oops.
Travelers to Aruba should take note of the cruise ship schedule coming into port. While there are plenty of beaches and activities to enjoy for everyone, surges of cruise shippers may create busier than usual traffic or book up select tours, including the Jolly Pirates tour pictured below.
Aruba photos courtesy of Madeline Burch and Aruba Tourism Authority.
Disclosure: I received a discounted rate on my stay at the Boardwalk Small Hotel Aruba, however all opinions expressed are unbiased and my own.
Looking for more on Aruba travel? Be sure to check out our other articles on this sunny island: